When you think of the long-term unemployed, it is unlikely that the first image that comes to mind is of a grandparent.
If experience is essential, he's your man
Yet the reality is that over a quarter of people on Newstart Allowance are in their fifties and sixties, and one third of the long-term unemployed are in these age brackets.
The issues around age discrimination in the workforce are disturbing and need to be addressed if we are to ensure our economy remains sustainable as the population ages.
But in the meantime, the fact remains that a person who loses a job in their fifties faces a huge uphill battle to get fulltime meaningful employment again, despite a life time of experience and credentials.
As a result, there are large numbers of older Australians who languish on unemployment benefits for years. Almost 30 per cent of the long-term unemployed are aged 55 or over.
This means that people in their sixties have to meet strict and too often pointless activity tests requirements – right up until they can apply for an Age Pension at age 65.
Australia’s unemployment benefits were designed to tide people over, to support them in the short term until they were able to gain employment. However 60 per cent of people live on it for more than 12 months – that’s not short term.
At only $35 a day it is a struggle for anyone to get by on for a short time, impossible over a longer period.
Newstart is considerably less than other support pensions. The single Age Pension is $133 a week more than Newstart and comes with less strict income tests and more generous concession card arrangements. At the current rate of indexation, Newstart payments will be worth only half of the Age Pension in 20 years’ time.
Research recently released by ACOSS shows that 35 per cent of people 65 and over live below the poverty line on the Age Pension. With Newstart even less, it is little wonder we hear so many stories of the older unemployed having trouble paying bills and skipping meals just to get by?
To its credit, the Senate is currently holding an Inquiry into the adequacy of the allowance payment system and the changing nature of the labour market.
The Inquiry must consider the special issues facing many of the older unemployed in regard to assistance to return to work. However the Newstart Allowance is completely inadequate and entrenches poverty and marginalisation at any age.
Reform of employment support is overdue. It is critical the government seriously considers increasing Newstart payments by $50 a week at a minimum and index it appropriately so all job seekers can be supported in a way that enables people to maintain an acceptable quality of life.
There needs to be greater recognition of the training needs of older people with an expansion of places for older jobseekers in the wage subsidy scheme for very long term unemployed.
And ultimately a more thorough, independent inquiry needs to be established to drill down into the challenges and opportunities posed by an ageing population and explore how the skills and experience of older Australians can be better recognised by employers across the board so less older people need to rely on unemployment benefits.
Long-term unemployment is not an issue restricted to the young and unskilled as is the widely accepted norm. It affects a much broader cross section of our community which must be considered in any reforms in this area.
Ian Yates is Chief Executive of Council on the Ageing Australia